Am I kidding myself?
Celibate same-sex attracted Christians, while accepting that they need to say “no” to their desires for sexual intimacy with another person of the same sex, often long for another way of meeting their God-given hunger for connection and intimacy with others. Behind this is this reasonable question: “Are there any healthy alternatives to sexual intimacy that will ease loneliness and physical isolation for celibate Christians?” In this article, I’ll offer some biblical principles to steer our hearts and minds towards discerning whether a particular way of developing intimacy is sensible or if it’s just going to lead to greater temptation.
Hungry for connection
In biblical times, there would have been more non-sexual everyday physical contact between same sex friends for both practical and cultural reasons than is usual in modern Western society. For example, Ecclesiastes 4:11 says (in the days before central heating!): “if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?”
Ironically, since the so-called sexual revolution in the 1960s, non-sexual physical contact has actually become harder in our culture. For example, a hug or a squeeze on the shoulder might now be seen as flirting. The sexual revolution has sought to overthrow taboos in the name of freedom, but in some societies in the Middle East today men have the freedom to hold hands together purely as friends because the sexual taboos around same-sex relationships free them from suspicion.
Despite how connected our smartphones claim to make us, many people in our society today are feeling lonely and disconnected. Our culture continually tells us that the answer to this is sexual intimacy. Is there a godly answer to this for faithful Christians?
What intimacy is wise for the celibate Christian?
Over many years of providing pastoral support at TFT, we've heard same-sex attracted Christians suggest a number of ways of meeting their longings for intimacy:
- Hugs with a same-sex friend
- Visiting naturist beaches
- Visiting gay bars or nightclubs without the intention of sexual intimacy
- Using an online chatroom or a dating website/app to meet other same-sex attracted people just for friendship
- Sharing a house or going on holiday with another person of the same sex
- Solemnising a particular same-sex friendship
There is no “one size fits all” biblical answer to many of these suggestions, although some of them (eg the dating app or visiting gay bars) ring more alarm bells than others.
What seems relatively safe behaviour for one person might be “playing with fire” (Prov 6:27) for another person. We are all wired differently and at different levels of maturity in our Christian walk. For example, one person might find going on holiday with a same-sex friend provides great companionship and helps to deepen friendship. But another person, particularly where there is sexual attraction towards the friend, might discern that there would be too many temptations and not enough accountability. What is important is that each person seeks to be utterly honest about his/her own heart desires and vulnerabilities, whilst recognising that it is so easy to deceive ourselves (Jeremiah 17:9), and also reviews the impact on others involved.
The rest of this article gives five biblical principles to consider.
Principle 1: Flee from sexual immorality
We are commanded to “flee from sexual immorality” (1 Cor 6:18). We need to have a broad understanding of sexual immorality, including those outwardly innocent behaviours that might have sexual undertones. God gave us a long list of unlawful sexual relations in Leviticus 18, but Jesus developed further the definition of sexual morality in his teachings to include our sexual thoughts and motivations (Matt 5:27-30). For example, for a woman to hold another woman’s hand in one situation might be reassuring, but in another context it might have sexual energy.
We need to be honest with ourselves where there might be a sexual element in our interactions with others and, where this is the case, to flee from sexual immorality. We must be aware of the seductiveness of immorality (see Proverbs 5-9) and its ability to warp our thinking into justifying our desires.
But don’t take from this principle that the Christian life is one of hiding, and isolation from others. Not at all. Instead, we should practise love, service and hospitality within our churches (1 Peter 4:7-11) and find biblical contentment in our current situations - Paul wrote about this as a single man in Phil 4:10-13.
Principle 2: The cross AND the heart
It is right to take up our crosses daily (In Luke 9:23, Jesus says “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me”). It is also right to pursue the desires of our hearts (Psalm 37:4 says “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart”). Like many biblical truths, there is a right tension to pursue here and we need to avoid being simplistic. Yes, we need to crucify ungodly desires and expect complete satisfaction only in the life to come (Rev 21:4), but Jesus himself promised many blessings in this present life for the believer who has made sacrifices (Mark 10:29-30).
And we need to read these verses in context and let the whole Bible interpret each passage. So, for example, notice in Psalm 37:4 cited above that the first thing is to “Delight yourself in the Lord”: only from this spiritual position will we increasingly desire what is good according to God. So “he will give you the desires of your heart” is not the same as “you can have whatever you want”. We should expect blessings in the form of meaningful relationships with others, but those relationships might not be with the people we find most attractive!
Principle 3: Pursue wisdom
We do need to know where God’s boundaries are for our behaviours, but we should beware of supplementing these with our own legalistic rules of behaviour to define what is safe versus what is risky. An example of this might be “I mustn’t give my friend a back rub with his shirt off; but it’s fine if he’s got his shirt on.” Colossians 2:16-23 advises us that such man-made rules can do nothing to turn our hearts from sin, so although they might contain some wisdom we need to be wary of relying on them to guarantee a safe experience. Verse 23 states “These [invented rules] have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” So if a behaviour is not clearly prohibited in the Bible, we are to ask God for wisdom (James 1:5), since some things are biblically allowable but not pastorally wise.
Here are some questions to help determine the wisdom (or otherwise) of a proposed behaviour:
- Does it satisfy and ease my desire for connection or does it leave me aroused and wanting to go further next time?
- Is there a safer way of meeting this desire? For example, rather than channelling all my energies into developing one “special friendship”, could I spend time with two or three friends to avoid getting emotionally enmeshed with one person?
- Do any others involved share my Christian faith and agree to the same boundaries as me?
- Am I being honest with myself about my motivations? I mustn’t pretend that I’m trying to evangelise or support another person, for example, when it’s really about my own needs.
Principle 4: Consider others
If, by way of example, a lady were to attend a Sunday service at your church wearing a skimpy or tight-fitting outfit, she might enjoy showing off her body. But we need to be careful about the impact of our free choices on other people. For her fellow church-goer, for example, she might become a stumbling block, unnecessarily triggering thoughts and feelings such as lust or jealousy.
Paul writes in Rom 14:21: “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” In his day, there were controversies around what was permissible to eat and drink and Paul generally advocated freedom in this area; but where it might cause difficulties for a less mature Christian, he calls us to abstain from otherwise legitimate behaviours. Don’t assume that because you have the self-control to engage safely in an activity that it will be the same for another person. Part of the cost of living in Christian community is not always getting to do what we’d like to do. So we should always be aware of the impact of our behaviours on others and err on the side of abstinence if we think it might lead them astray.
Principle 5: Walk in the light
Where there is no conclusive biblical principle around behaviour that has a strong appeal, and hence the need to exercise godly judgement, we are rarely wise to rely on our own discernment. In John’s first letter, he calls us to live in the light (1 John 1:5-10). We are to seek counsel and then to continue walking in the light, keeping our behaviour open to scrutiny by mature Christians. This may need to be an ongoing accountability arrangement where the other person would be willing to challenge you when appropriate. Another possibility could be to explore pastoral care, counselling or spiritual direction with a wise Christian.
A good test of whether Jesus is really Lord in this area of our lives is to ask ourselves this question: “How might I respond to another Christian challenging the wisdom of what I’m doing?” If we would genuinely respond with thoughtful consideration, that is a good sign; but if we would respond with angry defensiveness, then that may indicate that we are not open to challenge in this area (Proverbs 10:17 says: “Whoever heeds discipline shows the way to life, but whoever ignores correction leads others astray”).
If the person I’m thinking of involving in my activity also faces similar temptations, then forming a larger group may provide more accountability.
Communion with God
In this article, I’ve tried to avoid setting forth “dos” and “don’ts”, but rather set out five biblical principles to help us live Godly but fulfilling lives in how we relate to others. However, we must have realistic expectations about our relationships with other people – they will always include disappointments. Ultimately, we need to develop genuine intimacy in our relationship with God. At our June 2018 conference, Tim Keller described how he has found satisfying “communion with God” through daily meditation upon the Psalms (see his book “My Rock My Refuge”). I will give Jesus the last word on the depth of relationship that he wants with each of us: “I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15)
This article was published in the Christmas 2018 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend.